An experiment in giving
About 4 or 5 years ago, the mainstream media started reporting on a strange and terrifying phenomenon that came to be known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: a tremendous swath of floating plastic refuse out in the deep ocean, somewhere between California and Japan, that regularly made landfall in Hawaii, and other countries around the northern Pacific rim.
Media outlets declaimed that a raft of plastic and other floating detritus roughly twice the size of Texas was bearing down on Hawaii, trash thrown out by careless people from all around the world, killing wildlife, poisoning our food, destroying the beauty of our beaches. All of which was true, more or less.
And none of which was news to me.
It was in the late 90’s that I first learned about these great piles of floating garbage, while sitting in the top floor lecture room at Harvard Hall (along with 150 other adult students) at the Marine Biology lecture taught by the indefatigable Professor George Buckley of the Harvard Extension School. We saw pictures taken by marine expedition crews not only in the Northern Pacific Ocean, but in the North Atlantic and other gyres around the world. Acres of floating refuse. Seal pups born with six pack rings embedded in their necks. Turtles who’d swallowed shopping bags mistaken for jelly fish, laying dead on a beach or boat deck. Expedition after expedition has gone out to study these killing fields, and nothing has changed. Talking heads talk. Politicians argue. Researchers publish. But nothing changed.
I say nothing, but actually much has changed over the years. Not just here in Massachusetts, where one small suburban town a scant few miles from my house became the first in the nation to ban the sale of single-use water bottles (a symbolic gesture to be sure). But also around the world, where states and countries have instituted measures to ban the use of plastic shopping bags, or otherwise restricted their use.
So what’s really changed? Not much more than people’s attitudes: we’re tired of talk, stop telling us how big the problem is; give us results, or leave us be. And yet the gyres continue to suffocate under decades of accumulated, world-wide waste. It’s still growing, and other than an awful lot of research and finger-pointing, nothing’s been done.
I sit here writing this now, looking at my town’s list of unapproved plastics, things not acceptable for recycling:
This list might not seem very long, but every day as I sort my recyclables, I find myself discouraged by just how much still has to be put in the trash bin. As a consumer, I have little choice in the matter: no matter how hard I try, if there is something I need for my life (such as that bottle of antifreeze to keep my car running through our long New England winters) I can only find it packaged in the most detrimental plastics, which my town refuses to treat as anything else but refuse. I still struggle to do my part, declining plastic bags when purchasing items at shops that don’t offer paper, dutifully separating and sorting my recyclables, composting food waste in the back yard. But it is not just non-recyclables items that are ending up in our oceans; there are plenty of recyclable materials that end up there as well. To understand just how bad the problem really is, surf the links over at 5gyres.org. It may shock you to learn just how little is actually getting recycled that could be, and should.
Somewhere between the late 50’s and the early 80’s, it became acceptable to us to stop fixing things when they broke. Instead we just throw them away and buy a new one. Now, virtually everything we own is designed to fail within 3 years, just so we’ll have to go and buy another (compare the parts and performance of a well-maintained fan from the 60’s to even the top-of-the-line in 2010, and you know exactly what I’m talking about). Supposedly, this is so we can keep growing the economy, but I wonder. How has it come to be in our lives, that it is perfectly acceptable that a fork used to eat a single piece of cake, on a single occasion, is throw away instead of washed and reused? And worst still is that we are making these ‘disposable goods’ out of the single most valuable (and expensive) limited resource we have on this planet: OIL.
All of these issues (and many more) came to mind immediately the moment I found my second campaign selection from StartSomeGood: Upcycle The Gyres, Transforming Plastic Pollution to Clean the Oceans.
The folks at Upcycle the Gyres Society don’t just want to clean up the gyres (they do). They don’t just want to get people to recycle more (they do). They don’t just want to save wildlife (they do). But with all, they want to show that cleaning up the gyres, recycling (upcycling) the materials there, and saving wildlife can all be done profitably. That, along with all the garbage, there’s gold in the gyres, and they want to show the world how it can be done.
A number of companies, mostly from Japan, have invented portable machines that will take most types of non-recyclable plastics and return them to oil, for very little energy cost in the conversion (compare that to the energy cost of drilling and processing crude, and it’s a positive gain). UGS believes that by outfitting any number of vessels with these machines, they can go directly to the source and process the plastics on site. This oil can be used to fuel the very ships sent out to process the plastics, although these ships will also be designed to use solar and wind power to reduce their footprint. Excess oil can be brought back to shore and sold for heating or cooking fuel, helping to pay for the endeavor. And, any that plastics can’t be upcycled can be brought back to shore for normal recycling.
They are raising the funds to pay back the loans they have already taken (that’s how much they believe in this) to purchase a unit and demonstrate their plan at several world-wide conference on the gyres. Here, watch the video for yourself:
For striving to prove their goals in the face of nay-sayers, finding a practical means to reduce waste and save our oceans, a way to turn garbage into gold, Code Black has just funded Upcycle The Gyres.
Oh, as for Dr. Buckley? He’s still teaching at Harvard, where he is now Associate Director of the Environmental Management Studies program. He’s also still researching how we can save our oceans around the world.